Sunday, September 17, 2006

Tools of My Trade (the acoustics)

I love my acoustics. They are what I do most of my practicing on. I figure if I can get a line or phrase on the acoustic when I plug in the electric it will be there. Kind of like running with ankle weights.I have three categories of the acoustic end of the spectrum. They are my own categories and are completely arbitrary.

Studio and Home (never fly or ship, they ride with me or they don't ride at all)
Road Warriors
Double Duty

The main studio and home acoustic guitars are three Martin D28 models. Two six string and one 12. I love the D28. They are big, loud and ballsy. The sound from them jumps right out at you. When I am using them in the studio I sit about a foot from a good microphone and let them take that right into the board. Martins provide a sound that works well for me. They're expensive, but hey, so am I. I acquired my beauties at various times. One of the sixes was from an estate sale. The people really didn't know what they had. I took it to a dealer and he said that it was from the mid-sixties. The D28 style really hasn't changed all that much, there's really not a lot of difference between the years. I string them with D'Aquisto Brass Masters medium guage sets. The brass alloy in these strings gives a brighter more penetrating tone. The downside is that they wear out quickly. The upside is that I change strings very frequently. Like with the electrics, 20 hours playing time maximum. I always change the whole set. If one string breaks, I change the whole set.

The Road Warriors

When I have to travel any long distances over any great length of time I leave my beloved Martins at home and take a set of Three Ovations. Again, two sixes and a twelve. The sixes are both the 1778 LX models, I bought them at the same time, one in black, one in deep red. That way I can tell them apart onstage. I usually keep on tuned to a standard tuning, one in drop D. The twelve string is the Glen Campbell Balladeer model. Again, like with the Rickey 12 in the electrics I have the bottom two strings set for a 2 octave separation instead of one. I just like it that way. What completely sold me on the Ovation guitars happened at a trade show in L.A. I watched an Ovation representative take a 12 string guitar, tune it, play for a little bit and then walk over to a concrete pillar and smack it with the guitar. Then he went back to his seat and began to play again. The motherfucker was still in tune and from that moment on I was a fan. These guitars are perfect for a working, traveling professional because they are tough, durable instruments that have the added bonus of sounding damn good. They also are all acoustic/electrics so all I have to do is plug them in and rip.

The Double Duty Guitars are:

For the softer, more romantic sound, I use a Jose Ramirez S1. It works for a lot of the quieter folk and country stuff. It handles the Brazilian and Latin Jazz genre pretty well too. With a nylon string guitar you can afford to play the strings a bit longer, well, OK, twice as long. 40 hours of playing time. It also takes a full day of tuning, playing, and retuning to beat a new set of strings into submission.

For blues and bottleneck work I have two that I use. They are both resonophonic guitars. These were predecessors of the electrics. They have a big bell brass resonating disk in the middle of the guitar. They are loud, they also have a very distinctive sound. One is by the company that pioneered this type of guitar to where it has become synonomous with the type of guitar. Dobro. I use a Phil Leadbetter model. The action on this puppy is very high, so if I am going to be doing much fret work I switch over to a 1950's model National Steel Body. This one has a lot of funk and snap to it. There always seems to be a new buzz or rattle popping up for me to track down, but frankly, for the type of music I play with this instrument it's almost part of the charm.

So that's the full run down on the guitar part of the tool chest. Again, each of the individual guitars has it's own strong points and drawbacks. There's something to love about each one of them.


Blogger Pogo said...

Thanks for all the info - very informative to a would-be guitar player. Particularly interested in the advice on tuners and bridge. Standard Fender bridge and tuners seem like a good choice, or do you have a different recommendation? I'll pass my thanks along to PoP for introducing us - she's a peach.

6:29 AM  
Blogger Tata said...

I'll call Dad tonight and tell him he should've let us kids bash his guitars. He may ground me until I retire.

8:12 AM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

pogo: any good size full service music store should have a guitar teck, or even better, a luthier on staff. if you buy the hardware from them they should offer to install it for a nominal fee. i like the stock Fender bridges, they are durable and designed for that particular instrument. if you want to get into using a tremelo i would suggest that you have the Floyd Rose system installed. my main gripe with the "whammy bar" was that it whacked the tuning all to hell. the floyd rose solves that nicely. i just never got into it. for the tuners, Grovers and Schalers are my favorites. something i look for on a machine head is can you tune down to the pitch and have it stay steady. you'll find that making these two simple upgrades will turn your Squier into a whole new instrument. then, you can begin thinking about some internal surgeries, the pots (the things the knobs work), the pickups, the wiring and stuff can all be upgraded to give you better response and sound. but first things first. bridge and tuners will bring you up to "code" nicely.

tata: i'm sure that there was a lot of showbiz involved with that demonstration, it was still dramatic. i always have kept a couple "beaters" lying around the house that i let kids goof around with. i have known a couple of young ones who from the moment they picked up one of mine it was apparent that they had something in their gene pool that made them handle, look, and approach a musical instrument differently. i also let kids sit at my harps when they come over. there's something about that instrument that really reaches something deep inside. i wouldn't let any kid or adult pull an "el kabong" with any instrument, not even a disposable one. i used to think about the who "why not pick a player in the audience and give him your guitar pete?"

9:47 AM  
Blogger Pogo said...

Thanks for the info - I think the Music store I wander in to to drool has a pretty good tech - I'll check with them about a bridge and tuners - the bridge on mine is stock, I'm sure, and has a whammy bar that I don't use and couldn't care less about having. I replaced the pots and pickups a year ago with a set I bought off the internet mounted on a pickguard. The old pots were scratchy, and no amount of contact cleaner would make them quiet down. I doubt that they are high end stuff, but the whole rig was around $60 and they sound just fine to me - much better than what came on the guitar to begin with. Mine's got beautiful pearl white paint and a reddish tortoise pickguard and I'd have to say my only real complaint is the weight - it must weigh 3 or 4 pounds more than my kid's Peavey. I've been thinking about having them set the instrument up anyway, so I think I'll check on getting the parts and let them do it. Thanks for the advice.

10:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


here is a picker that you should know about. His name is Brad Davis.

click here

yo soy Horsedooty!

2:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pogo and MB,

doesn't the weight of a guitar along with the density of the wood affect the "sustain" of the sound? Isn't that a consideration for using Maple and Ash as a guitar body?

yo soy Horsedooty!

2:11 PM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

horsedooty mi amigo:

there are several factors that all contribute to the sustain. there are many hardwoods that all can contribute something. although wood density has more to do with volume and brilliance of the tone. with electrics the question of sustain is one of tradeoffs. the big hollowbody, or even semi solid body electrics deliver acceptable levels of sustain while the dense, solid bodies like the fabled Paul deliver it in spades. there are things you can do to trick the guitar into sustaining. compressors, and sustain units added into the circuit can do that, there's even a magnetic field generator called the "eBow" that will deliver as much tone sustain as you care to have. the other edge of the sustain sword though is that you need to work at learning how to damp and shut the strings up as you move around on the fingerboard. i come from a more acoustic mindset. as the notes decay and diminish there are levels of tone and intensity that are all part of the musical performance. i would still be playing a les paul today if my shoulder hadn't given out on me. maple and ash are wonderful guitar woods, so are spruce, mahogany, koa, and teak. my strats were built with air (not kiln) cured swamp ash. a good friend has a strat made from mahogany which really delivers the goods too.

2:59 PM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

weight can be a real issue. it's very hard to put up with the discomforts that are part and parcel of playing strings when you have the added burden of lugging it around on one shoulder. a wider, more generously padded strap might be the answer. when you take it in for the set up ask the technician about it. it might be something fixable. when you are in for the set up go over with the tech about your playing style. is your touch heavy or light? what thickness pick to you use? (i use totally heavy, big murderous thick ones) things like that are germaine to string action, distance from the pickups and other stuff. when i'm playing an electric i like letting the electronics do a lot of the work, but i still attack strongly enough to be able to notice a diffence when i lighten up.

3:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks MB I used to have a D-18 from the 50s that was as bright as any guitar I have ever played. Mahogany and spruce top. Had little snowflakes for the dots in the finger board. Should have never sold it.

When I was playing (mostly bluegrass) I converted the string pins and the saddle and the nut to a fossalized ivoroid to help with the volume with the belief that the harder materials would lead to louder guitars. I also like the guitar set up to be rather high as I like heavy gauge strings. My hands are in no shape to play a guitar like that right now but I like the way they sound.

yo soy Horsedooty!

3:15 PM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

martins and bluegrass are simply made for each other aren't they? i have a hard time converting rookies over to the thicker strings, they hurt. although after years and years of playing every day i just don't notice. the trade off you get by the richer sound alone is worth it. the overtones and resonance produced by bigger strings under higher tension is something that i think is felt physically like a bass viol thump. bringing the hands into shape can take a long time. there really isn't any shortcut that will do the trick. once established though, even after years of lay off they come back faster than they did the first time. too bad you sold your martin. a friend of mine just acquired a very old (1910) Martin nylon string small body. it was called a "parlor" guitar. it sounds beautiful. because of it's small body size the tone is very soft and understated but it still has the richness and depth you expect from a Martin. Oh, yeah, and the label's in German. you'll have to excuse me while i indulge in a fit of jealousy.

11:26 PM  
Blogger BadTux said...

I envy your guitars, Minstrel. My sole acoustic is a low-end Yamaha plywood model. It actually does a quite adequate job within its limitations, my playing style to a certain extent is built around its limits (somewhat more percussive than is typical for an acoustic guitar, and due to its poor action, built around variations of open chords). For strings, I've tried a number of strings, but what I have ended up with is D'Addario phosphor bronze lights, which have a bright sharp tone that lasts a reasonable amount of time. They don't have the overtones and resonances of the mediums, but a cheap plywood guitar doesn't know what to do with those anyhow. And yes, if I break a string, I pull a set out of the gig bag and replace the whole set of strings :).

One of these days I want to do a Dobro or National. I love the sound you can get playing bluesy bottleneck on those things. But the fact of the matter is that I'm a computer professional, not a musician, so I just can't justify spending four-figure sums on a guitar rather than on a computer, especially since I no longer seem to be doing the songwriting thing (having moved on to fiction)...

-Badtux the Envious Penguin

11:13 AM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

there's no way i could justify the amount of money i have spent on my instruments. but i have heard people with cheaper guitars sound just fine. i was at a radio station in l.a. helping a singer friend promote a show and one of the other guests was the legendary bluesman josh white. josh brought along his only guitar. it was an old sears silvertone six string. it had a shitload of cracks and even some holes in it. he stuffed them with plugs of white bread that he had brought along and began to play. i was awestruck. later we were talking outside and he said that people had offered to buy him every kind of guitar in the world, that people had tried to give him guitars and he would always refuse because he liked his old silvertone just fine. his only worry was that someday he might not be able to find wonder bread to stuff in the cracks. he said that there was something different about the guitar when it was stuffed with wonder bread. those old bluesmen from the delta were something to behold. i got to meet a few of them, play with them, and hear their stories. when the last of them are gone it will be a loss for music itself. there are some off brands that do a credible job of turning out a resonophonic guitar without the huge price tag of the dobro or the national. there's a korean company called Pear that makes a very decent moderately priced steel body guitar. eBay is also a good place to find them. in louisiana you might be able to find something decent at an estate sale. when your fingers are ready the axe should find you.

6:40 PM  
Blogger Tata said...

My dad knew Josh White, and is thrilled that Josh White's son has made a name for himself. I get email on this topic.

7:17 PM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

the old guys like leadbelly who was able to sing his way out of prison, not once, but twice, were national treasures. josh white, furry lewis, lightnin' hopkins, son house, all of those men who sang so passionately about their lives and experiences. i miss them. every day. i miss them. there was a truth in their singing that the new guys can't grasp. when leadbelly sang about "jump down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton" he not only knew what he was singing about, the people he was singing for did too.

9:46 AM  

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